Peer Review

Presidential Views on the Liberally Educated Professional

To set the context for this issue of Peer Review and to get a sense of how leaders from a range of institutions are working to create effective programs and practices to graduate liberally educated professionals, we asked Michael Bassis, president of Westminster College (Utah); Christopher Dahl, president of State University of New York, Geneseo; Helen Giles-Gee, president of Keene State College; and Richard Guarasci, president of Wagner College, to share their thoughts on this topic.

“What we need is more big picture thinking in the professions and more real-world experience in the liberal arts.”

Steven Weiss (1935–2008)
Former Managing Director, Neuberger Berman LLC

Do you agree with Steven Weiss’s quote and, if so, how are you advancing more big picture thinking in your institution’s professional programs?

BASSIS—At Westminster, we think about “big picture thinking in the professions” in the exact same way we think about big picture thinking in the liberal arts. We start with the premise that we want all of our graduates, regardless of their field of study, to develop skills to be successful both in their careers and in their lives beyond. We believe that those skills are ones that help one to understand, for example, that some questions are more important than others, that multiple perspectives bring richer understandings, that the whole is often greater than the sum of its parts, that there is much to learn from diversity, and that ethics matter. As our economy continues to evolve, our graduates will need to have skill sets that are not only valuable as conditions change but transferrable for use in the multiple careers they are likely to have and the variety of roles they will play beyond the workplace. The Westminster faculty believe they have identified specific skills and attributes that meet this test. As a consequence, they adopted them as College-Wide Learning Goals that they want all of our graduates to achieve. They include critical, analytical and integrative thinking; creative and reflective capacities; leadership; collaboration and teamwork; writing and other communication skills; and global consciousness, social responsibility, and ethical awareness. Beyond that, the faculty have developed specific rubrics which, when combined with a requirement that all students complete an e-portfolio to demonstrate their learning, allow them to evaluate, over time, each student’s progress in achieving these learning goals.

DAHL—I agree. We certainly need more big-picture thinking in the professions and more real-world experience in the liberal arts. But I also think that Weiss’s remarks preserve what might be called the myth of the functional dichotomy between the liberal arts and the professions. The original artes liberales—the quadrivium and trivium of the ancient world—were practical in a very real sense. They were the arts of free people (as opposed to slaves), intended to prepare such people—admittedly a very small elite—for civic discourse and full participation in the society of the time. Our contemporary concepts of liberal education, as expressed in The LEAP Vision for Learning, for example, are intended to break down stereotypical distinctions between liberal arts and professional fields, especially when they are carried out with sufficient intentionality and power. AAC&U’s 2003 study of the crosswalks between the Greater Expectations outcomes and the requirements of professional accrediting bodies reminded me of something I have observed as an arts and sciences dean and provost working with professional programs: in practice, an AACSB-accredited business administration program may be more “liberal” in the learning outcomes it calls for than programs in traditional arts and sciences fields like English or chemistry. In a residential public liberal arts college like Geneseo, this may be so because we require professional programs to think about what it means to be a professional program in our setting. We don’t ask the same of traditional arts and sciences programs. Because we are a residential liberal arts college that seeks to leverage the connections between the curriculum and the cocurriculum and also between service learning and economic development, we naturally encourage big-picture thinking. Thanks to a recent major gift for an endowed chair in entrepreneurship, we have a new, highly specific opportunity to encourage such thinking. Rather than isolating the professorship in our School of Business, we have defined it as a college-wide position—a business professorship designed to study and promote entrepreneurship as a liberal art.

GILES-GEE—I appreciate the duality of Weiss’s quote as it recognizes the value of application and practice in the professions and the broad ranging abilities and knowledge developed through the liberal arts. At Keene State College, all professional programs have at their core an integrative general education program, which has imbedded the knowledge and cognitive abilities within the liberal arts that promote “big picture thinking.” We promote the idea that the development of knowledge that applies across a variety of professions expands the capacity of graduates to adapt to a changing and global world. In addition, Keene State College brings real-world experience to our liberal arts programs. Students are presented with opportunities to partner with community organizations to conduct research and project-based work that helps them hone skills in their chosen field.

GUARASCI—I also agree with Weiss’s quote. At Wagner we integrate the professional programs and traditional liberal arts by requiring all students to complete three learning communities that are lodged in the liberal arts. This is part of the Wagner Plan for The Practical Liberal Arts, introduced as required for all students in 1998. Our curriculum links experiential and civic learning with course clusters consisting of two disciplinary courses and a reflective tutorial taught exclusively to a common student cohort. For professional program students this regularly integrates liberal arts and professional program courses (e.g., chemistry and nursing, sociology and business, history and education, etc.). The field component requirements which are natural for the professional programs allow us to introduce the practical application dimension for the traditional arts and sciences (e.g. English majors providing textual and interpretive reading for senior centers; history majors engaged in field work in public history for museums, library audiences, nonprofit organizations, etc.).

Why do you think employers are seeking liberally educated professionals?

GILES-GEE—In February 2012, Keene State College held a roundtable with New Hampshire business leaders in such areas as manufacturing, insurance, human resources, and general contracting. Facilitated by the CEO of the New Hampshire High Tech Council, business leaders were asked what they considered to be the most valuable skills to consider when hiring individuals who are just out of college. A summary of their responses included a desire for college graduates who possess the ability to write; interpersonal/ communication skills; hands-on experience, problem-solving skills and study skills; the ability to think about best ways to apply knowledge, as opposed to just applying it; business understanding (real-world understanding); consultative skills (knowing how to work with clients); strategic/ conceptualization skills (seeing the big picture); internship experience in solving problems; an understanding of the need for continuous self-development; the ability to be a team player; flexibility; and the capability to deal with difficult people and resolve conflicts. The vice president for advancement paraphrased these responses in this way: the employers want employees who can adapt over time, be self-directed, and continue to be relevant within the workplace as customers and products change. I agree with her assessment. Liberal arts programs provide graduates with the skills and knowledge to address these various and at times competing demands. At Keene State College we apply feedback from employers to our programs to ensure that our graduates receive the education they need for success.

BASSIS—It’s clear from surveys of employers that they are generally satisfied with the subject-specific knowledge and skills of most graduates of professional programs. Accounting majors know how to balance the books and those majoring in nursing know their way around the hospital. At the same time, however, they are dismayed with the inability of those same graduates to write a coherent memo, work as part of a team, work with people with different backgrounds and values, think creatively and critically, assume a leadership role…the list goes on. For years we have thought that the way to fix that problem was to ask students to take more courses in the liberal arts. But the criticisms about what our graduates have failed to learn apply as much to those who major in the liberal arts as they do to those majoring in professional fields. It’s no secret that some liberal arts programs, like many in our professional schools, operate as silos where the goal is to pass on a narrow range of discipline-specific knowledge and skills. The issue is not what one studies but what skills our students take away with them from their studies. The liberally educated professionals that employers are seeking could major in almost any field. But whatever the field, they would have to acquire knowledge, skills, and attributes similar to the Essential Learning Outcomes of AAC&U’s LEAP project.

DAHL—Surveys conducted for AAC&U by Hart Research Associates have confirmed what many of us have observed on the ground: today’s employers are looking for college graduates who are well prepared for the challenges of a global economy, who are culturally fluent, and who work well in teams and are able to solve problems in rapidly changing environments. Outcomes of this sort are fostered best by liberal education; reassuringly, they closely track the LEAP Essential Learning Outcomes. As I speak with employers in our region, I hear the same things, and, interestingly, I hear them most often from leaders in business and accounting. They tell me they value Geneseo graduates for their character, their work ethic, their cultural competence, and their ability to deal with a wide range of clients. I have taken to calling these liberal learning outcomes “the Geneseo liberal arts advantage.”

GUARASCI—The research data and our immediate experience in career development placements demonstrate vividly the desire by employers for students and graduates that not only write effectively, think critically, and speak persuasively, but also students who are adept learners capable of locating context and culturally specific norms, and who are comfortable with difference and unscripted problems. The liberal arts provide students with the breadth and depth of the human experience, particularly issues beyond the prism of their personal autobiographies. The field-based learning required for all students at Wagner provides them with experience translating from the general to the specific contexts they find themselves within organizations and communities.

As president, what is your role in advancing this model of liberally educated professionals and real-world experience for your school’s liberal arts majors?

GILES-GEE—First, I continue to learn more from qualitative and quantitative research on the outcomes of student learning and the varying characteristics of a liberal education, so that I can be an advocate who is able to articulate liberal education’s possibilities with data to support my points. Second, I garner funds to support faculty development about service learning and “essential learning outcomes” integration into the curriculum. Third, I continue to support the re-visioning of the general education program and its assessment by supporting faculty travel to workshops with their peers. Fourth, and most important, I continue to espouse the liberal arts as the core and application of theory as requisite for all programs, regardless of major.

BASSIS—Shortly after I arrived as Westminster’s new president almost ten years ago, I started a comprehensive and highly collaborative strategic planning process. I avoided the temptation to propose specific initiatives for inclusion in the plan. I did, however, fertilize the deliberations with information about changing conditions in higher education, changing instructional paradigms, and best practices used at other schools. Some of this information came from outside experts I brought to the campus, but much of it came from my speeches and informal conversations with various campus groups. Just as importantly, before the planning process got underway, I developed a set of design criteria to guide the planning process. Included here was language that called for the plan to develop an educationally distinctive, learning-centered environment that was supportive of both the liberal arts and professional studies. Then we were fortunate to be invited to join the New American Colleges and Universities, a consortium of private institutions who have joined together by their commitments to the liberal arts, professional studies, and civic responsibility. It was through actions such as these I encouraged the faculty to take advantage of the ways that professional studies and the liberal arts could strengthen each other.

DAHL—Geneseo is one of a small number of institutions that explicitly define themselves as public liberal arts colleges. That means I’m an evangelist for liberal learning in public college settings. As president, I return repeatedly to our liberal arts mission as a touchstone, whatever audience I am addressing, internal or external. As we hire senior administrators at Geneseo, we look for liberally educated individuals. Our long-time CFO, for example, was a professor of German who had also worked as a senior student affairs officer. In allocating resources, we always take our mission into account. Our current capital campaign, “Shaping Lives of Purpose,” focuses on the student experience and is designed to support the high-impact educational practices we value as a liberal arts college. In sum, we try to model the connections between liberal learning and the world of practice in all we do as a college. These connections need to be underlined on a daily basis, and as president I do a lot of the underlining. We seek to model humane leadership in the college and prepare humane leaders.

GUARASCI—As president, my role is to set and affirm these general parameters for learning and teaching, making sure they are valued in who we hire, tenure, and promote on the faculty and who we hire and sustain on our staff. Secondly my role requires that I reward, encourage, and demand a fully integrated educational platform for student learning across the curriculum and cocurriculum. This includes integrating alumni affairs with experiential learning and both the majors and general education faculty and staff. This also requires consistent institutional assessment as well. Finally, I teach a course each semester that models all of these practices.

Traditionally silos exist on campuses. How are you trying to break down divisions between the professional schools and arts and sciences?

GILES-GEE—The faculty has promoted and embraced team teaching and joint explorations of integrative courses that blend the arts and sciences with professional courses. The use of assessment of some of the “essential learning goals” across all programs has stimulated faculty to consider how writing or quantitative literacy can be incorporated into any major. Some capstone projects have combined majors from varying fields such as architecture, environmental science, and sociology to address different aspects of the same field-based problem as a team (e.g. improvements of a town park). When students and faculty from a variety of professional and liberal arts disciplines come together to solve real-world problems and communities benefit, some of those old silos lose their significance.

BASSIS—We believe our College-Wide Learning Goals constitute skills and attributes that are critical to a student’s success following graduation, regardless of their major field of study. Accordingly, we have concluded that every academic program across campus, as well as every cocurricular activity, can and should contribute to student achievement of those goals. We believe that every academic program can help students develop critical skills and attributes that transcend specific subject matter. By agreeing to do so, the Westminster faculty have acknowledged their common interests and concerns and that acknowledgment has worked to break down divisions across our entire spectrum of programs.

DAHL—At Geneseo, we have done everything we can to avoid creating silos. In fact, for many years we avoided granting the title of dean to the heads of our two professional schools. Although the deans of business and education are fully empowered (accreditation bodies expect this), they report directly to our provost, along with the chairs of our eighteen arts and sciences departments, and meet regularly in a joint council of deans and chairs. Geneseo’s general education program requires core courses of all students in all fields. We expect faculty from the professions to teach in writing-across-the-curriculum courses. Faculty from business and education regularly teach in our required humanities sequence, and we encourage team-teaching with faculty outside the professional programs. Over the past decade we’ve been fortunate to attract accounting professors with strong liberal arts backgrounds and teaching interests. We encourage students in arts and sciences fields to declare a minor in business, and are currently trying to provide access to business courses for all students. Many of our business programs, such as our student managed investment fund, are open to students from any field. Looking forward, we regard our college-wide professorship in entrepreneurship as a further tool to break down silos—and an exciting exercise in extending the reach of liberal learning.

GUARASCI—The Wagner Plan’s reliance on three required learning communities with experiential or civic components helps our faculty work together consistently across the artificial divides of professional and liberal arts and sciences. In addition to individual three-year teams, faculty meet annually in a three-day retreat and directly discuss many of these issues in various manifestations, and the first-year program faculty participants meet monthly as well. These arenas dilute a good deal of silo culture. In addition, the appropriate cocurriculum and student life leaders are part of all the discussions and dialogues. Common practice is the way to defeat silo thinking and practices. It works from the bottom up when the expectations for learning and teaching are clear, transparent, and valued.

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